A little over two years ago, Katrina Marshall took a big gamble.
She had been working at Artistic Toys & Promotions in Allentown for about 12 years and loved her job. Starting out as a receptionist she was promoted to a number of roles within the company and became a vital part of the process of selling custom promotional stuffed animals to corporations and organizations around the country.
But the owner of the company, Jim Socci, had lost passion for the business and was looking to sell it. He warned her that if he didn’t find any suitable buyers, he might just shut it down.
Marshall couldn’t bear to lose her job designing and selling stuffed Teddys and other dolls, so she asked Socci if she could buy the business. “It seemed far-fetched, but I’d run every department,” she said. “I told him ‘I think I can do this,’ and he said ‘I think you can, too.”
So, she and Socci worked out a deal for seller financing, with the agreement she would obtain financing to buy the business from him outright after two years.
She spent the first year of her ownership cutting costs and focusing on where her margins were. In the second year she started growing her customer base from the longtime, repeat customer base the company had built up over the years.
“I had a very profitable two years, so I only needed a small loan to buy him out,” she said.
Lehigh Financial Group of Allentown helped Marshall obtain a loan from First Keystone Community Bank in Bethlehem. The loan not only paid off Socci, but gave Marshall funds to expand the business, which had been growing under her leadership.
She plans to hire a handful of employees in jobs ranging from design and sales to production and warehousing.
Artistic Toys will also be moving to a new, larger facility in Nazareth. The new facility will provide nearly 17,000 square feet of space for the company’s design, sales, production and warehousing space, as compared to the just under 12,000 square feet of space they’re using in Allentown.
Marshall, who is a mother of five in addition to running Artistic Toys, said she is eager to see the company grow and to take on new clients.
She said it’s an exciting industry to be in, helping companies come up with customized stuffed toys to promote their business or cause.
The companies come to Artistic Toys with their ideas. Her artists design a single sample toy, often with the help of Marshall and the rest of the staff.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the art department or accounting, I lean on them for ideas,” Marshall said.
The company does work for a number of high profile clients, including the Ellen Show. They’ve also designed Snoopy dolls for Met-Life and stuffed Spam cans for Hormel Foods.
“Anyone looking to brand their company,” she said.
Marshall said it’s hard to pick her favorite out of the promotional toys Artistic Toys has made over the years. “I get so involved in the design of each one. They all become my favorites,” she said. But if she had to call out a couple, a stuffed yellow duck in scrubs might be one of her favorites. Besides its scrubs, Chemo Duck, as it is called, has a bandanna and comes with a matching bandana that the child it’s given to can wear once they start losing their hair.
It also has a tube and chemo port, that can be hooked up to the chemo machine so the patient and the doll can “go through chemo together.”
These dolls are given out at hospitals around the country and Marshall is proud to know they brought comfort to many children during a difficult time.
She is also proud of a stuffed avocado character she created for food maker Wholly Guacamole. When she got the contract for the dolls she and the customer weren’t quite sure what they wanted or how to create it, so the journey to come up with a product that ended up being so unique and adorable was quite an accomplishment.
Marshall works with most of her customers that way, sharing ideas and trying to help them come up with original ideas, or make the ideas they have come to life.
Sari Wiaz, of Wize Choice Creations of Chicago, said the help she received from Marshall and Artistic Toys has been a big part of her company’s success.
“I feel like I owe a lot to Katrina,” Wiaz said. “She’s not just my manufacturer and sourcing agent. She’s someone I rely on for ideas. I don’t think I could have been as successful as I was if it wasn’t for her guidance.”
Wiaz said Artistic Toys helped take her from a single, simple product idea, Baby Paper – a crinkly, stuffed cloth – and grew it into a business with NFL-licensed products and new ideas on the horizon.
“If there’s a way to do it, she figures out a way to get it done,” Wiaz said.
Marshall has also received a great deal of public recognition for her work at Artistic Toys.
She received the 2019 Woman of Color Achievement Award from the Women’s Presidents Organization.
The 39-year-old Marshall was also named a rising star by PPB Magazine, the trade publication for the promotional products industry.
Editor’s note: Interviews for this story were conducted before the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Artistic Toy, like every business, was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and did temporarily close operations. As of April 30, the company is maintaining a small skeleton crew at its manufacturing facility to fulfil orders. The majority of the staff are working remotely from home.